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The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, recounts his life lessons and experiences. Written with reporter Jeffrey Zaslow, the best-selling book is an expanded version of a “Last Lecture” Pausch gave in 2007, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The “Last Lecture” series was a tradition in which professors presented their philosophy of life, as if it were their last chance to share what was important to them. It truly was a last chance for Pausch, who had only months to live. But more importantly, the lecture was his legacy for his three young children, who would grow up without him there to guide them.

His book and lecture, which went viral and has been viewed by millions, are about living your dreams. (View the lecture at https://www.cmu.edu/randyslecture/)

Diagnosis

In summer 2006, Pausch experienced pain in his upper abdomen followed by jaundice. He at first thought he had hepatitis, but CT scans showed a tumor on his pancreas. Of all cancers, pancreatic cancer is the most deadly; half die within six months of diagnosis and 96% die within five years.

Pausch approached his treatment like a scientist, asking questions and seeking data. His goal was to live as long as possible for his family and to that end, he was willing to endure any potentially effective treatment no matter how miserable it made him feel. He underwent a complicated surgery called a “Whipple” procedure, which removed his gallbladder and part of his pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. However, tests seven months later, in August 2007, showed that the cancer had metastasized to his liver. His doctor said he probably had three to six months of good health remaining.

The day before the checkup, Pausch had told his wife Jai that regardless of the test results, for the moment, it felt great to be alive and be with her. That’s how he decided to live the rest of his life—focusing on the moment.

Childhood Dreams

Pausch and his older sister grew up in a middle-class community in Columbia, Maryland (suburban Baltimore), the children of an English teacher and an auto insurance salesman. He credited his positive childhood for the fact that he went on to achieve his dreams and live a fulfilling life.

One of the biggest ways his parents impacted him was by encouraging his imagination. For example, they allowed Pausch and his sister to paint his bedroom while he was in high school. Among other things, he painted a quadratic equation, an elevator (the house actually had just one floor), a periscope, a Pandora’s box, a rocket ship, and chess pieces.

Pausch had six childhood dreams: Winning the biggest stuffed animals at the carnival, playing in the NFL, writing an entry in the World Book Encyclopedia, being Captain Kirk of Star Trek, experiencing zero gravity, and becoming a designer or “Imagineer” for Disney.

Pausch never lost touch with his childhood dreams and, in various ways, he achieved them all.

He titled his Last Lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” In it, he advised listeners to carry around a Crayon as a reminder of childhood aspirations.

Captain Kirk

As a boy with an interest in science, Pausch loved the TV show Star Trek and its hero, Captain Kirk—as well as the show’s space-age gadgets, including pocket communications devices much like today’s smartphones. Pausch met his idol when actor William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk, visited his virtual reality lab at Carnegie Mellon. Shatner wanted to learn about the latest technology for a book he was co-authoring about Star Trek devices that foreshadowed real technological advances.

When Shatner later learned of Pausch’s diagnosis, he sent Pausch a signed photo of Kirk, inscribed with a line from the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan: “I don’t believe in...

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Introduction

When computer science professor Randy Pausch was invited to deliver a “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in September 2007, he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The Last Lecture was a Carnegie Mellon speaker series in which professors were invited to present their philosophy of life, imagining the lecture was their last chance to share personal and professional life lessons.

In Pausch’s case, it really was a last chance to impart life lessons—he’d been given just months to live. But more importantly, he viewed the lecture as his legacy for his three young children, who would grow up without him there to guide them.

Pausch’s lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” quickly went viral and was viewed by millions around the world...

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Part 1: The Last Lecture

When Pausch is invited to give a “Last Lecture,” the series has been renamed “Journeys,” and speakers are to talk about their “personal and professional journeys.” When he accepts the invitation months in advance, he’s optimistic about his prognosis. However, when it comes time to provide the title and an abstract, he wonders whether working on a lecture is the best use of the time he has left.

His wife, Jai (pronounced Jay), wants him to spend his time with the family rather than on preparing a lecture. Plus, he’ll have to travel to Pittsburgh from the family’s new home in Virginia the day before the lecture, which is Jai’s birthday—the last she’ll be able to celebrate with her husband.

But the idea of the lecture lingers as something he could leave his children, a way to say goodbye to his university colleagues, and a chance to cement his legacy and do a last bit of good. He tells Jai, “An injured lion still wants to roar.”

They decide to go ahead with it. The talk will be about living rather than dying and will focus on an aspect of his life that he feels makes him unique—he’s managed to fulfill every one of his seemingly outlandish childhood dreams. He wants the lecture...

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Shortform Exercise: Your Last Lecture

Carnegie Mellon University and others have a tradition of inviting professors to present a “Last Lecture,” as though it were their last chance to share personal and professional life lessons.


If you were invited to give a “Last Lecture,” what would your title be? What sentence or phrase sums up your life so far?

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Part 2: Fulfilling Childhood Dreams

Always an imaginative child, Pausch had six dreams: Winning the biggest stuffed animals at the carnival, playing in the NFL, writing an entry in the World Book Encyclopedia, being Captain Kirk of Star Trek, experiencing zero gravity, and becoming a designer or “Imagineer” at Disney. In various ways, he achieved them all.

Stuffed Animals

When Pausch was a child, he and his father took pride in winning giant stuffed animals at carnivals and amusement parks. Carrying around a giant stuffed animal won in a game of skill, such as shooting at cutouts of ducks or tossing rings at bottles, always drew admiring looks.

There were only two requirements for becoming the envy of the carnival: a pocket full of change and a long reach, which helped during the ring toss (you could lean toward the target and throw). Pausch says he never cheated, although he amassed so many stuffed animals and posed in so many photos with them that others sometimes doubted he’d won them all.

He displayed some of them at his Last Lecture and invited audience members to take them afterward—he didn’t want his wife to have to deal with the clutter of oversize stuffed animals after he died. After the...

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Shortform Exercise: What Was Your Dream?

Randy Pausch achieved his childhood dreams, partly by staying in touch with them and continuing to nurture his imagination.


Describe your most memorable childhood dream or aspiration. How old were you when you had it? What did you do with it?

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Part 3: Lessons Learned

Diagnosis

In summer 2006, Pausch experienced pain in his upper abdomen, followed by jaundice. He at first thought he had hepatitis, but CT scans showed a tumor on his pancreas. Of all cancers, pancreatic cancer is the most deadly; half of those who get it die within six months of diagnosis and 96% die within five years.

Pausch approached his treatment like a scientist, asking questions and seeking data. His goal was to live as long as possible for his family and to that end, he was willing to endure any potentially effective treatment, no matter how miserable it made him. He underwent a complicated surgery called a “Whipple” procedure, which removed his gallbladder and part of his pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. He lost 44 pounds from the brutal regimen, but scans in January showed no additional signs of cancer.

However, tests seven months later in August 2007 showed that the cancer had metastasized to his liver. Pausch and his wife learned the bad news from looking at his charts on the doctor’s computer while waiting for his appointment. The next step was palliative treatment (more chemo) to ease his symptoms to...

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Shortform Exercise: Brick Walls

Pausch liked to tell his students that when you run into brick walls, they’re an opportunity for you to demonstrate how badly you want something.


Think of a time when something threatened to prevent you from getting what you wanted. What did you want and what was the obstacle?

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Part 4: Keys to Success

As a professor, Pausch viewed his role as not just teaching his subject—computer science—but also teaching them how to succeed in life. The rest of the book presents his favorite principles and tips, including those highlighted in his Last Lecture plus some additional tips.

Value Your Time

Even before he got cancer, Pausch believed strongly in managing time well and emphasized this to his students. His key principles were:

  • Manage your time like your money. In other words, don’t throw your time away. Spending time on irrelevant details is as useless as polishing the underside of a banister.
  • Make a to-do list. To-do lists are useful for budgeting your time, but it’s important to break big tasks into smaller steps. For instance, you accomplish cleaning your room by picking up one thing at a time.
  • Prioritize. Are you doing the most important things? Pausch recalled seeing a newspaper photo of a pregnant woman who worried that noise from a construction site would hurt her unborn child. But in the photo accompanying the story, she’s smoking, which is a more immediate, and probably bigger, danger.
  • Create a filing system. If you don’t maintain an...

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Part 5: Advice for Living

Pausch believed everyone has a choice in life to be like one of two Winnie-the-Pooh characters: you can be like fun-loving, exuberant Tigger or like gloomy Eeyore.

Throughout his life, Pausch was a Tigger, looking for the fun in everything. Even having cancer didn’t turn him into an Eeyore—he made a point of having fun each day he had left. For instance, for his last Halloween, he and his family dressed like the Disney superheroes, the Incredibles. He posted a photo on his website, with a caption noting that chemotherapy hadn’t affected his superpowers, which was a reference to the costume’s exaggerated muscles.

He took a scuba-diving trip with three old friends (all Tiggers), and despite an awareness that it was their last time together, they focused on the moment, joking and making fun of each other. The others poked fun at Pausch for the “St. Randy of Pittsburgh” reputation he had acquired after giving his Last Lecture.

Pausch vowed to hold onto his Tigger persona to the end, saying there wasn’t any “upside” to being a sad Eeyore.

Words to Live By

Here’s more of Pausch’s advice for how to live, based on how he tried to live his life.

Dream big: When men...

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Shortform Exercise: Tigger or Eeyore?

Pausch urged his audience to choose which Winnie the Pooh character they wanted to be—the exuberant Tigger or gloomy Eeyore.


Are you mostly a Tigger or an Eeyore? Why do you say that?

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The Last Lecture Summary The Last Lecture Guide Part 6: Final Thoughts

The thought of his children growing up without him was one of the most difficult for Pausch to bear. Because they were too young for deep conversations about life and death, he simply tried to create memories that would later remind them of his love for them.

Besides spending as much time as possible with them, he created adventures for each child—for instance, he and Dylan went swimming with dolphins. In addition to creating a photo and video record of their times together, Pausch wrote out lists of what he loved about each child. He made videos telling each child what they meant to him.

He admired his son Dylan for being loving and empathetic in trying to comfort other children when they were hurt. He also liked Dylan’s analytical bent, curiosity, and his habit of noticing things and asking detailed questions. Pausch cited his son Logan’s physicality, energy, and...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: The Last Lecture
  • Exercise: Your Last Lecture
  • Part 2: Fulfilling Childhood Dreams
  • Exercise: What Was Your Dream?
  • Part 3: Lessons Learned
  • Exercise: Brick Walls
  • Part 4: Keys to Success
  • Part 5: Advice for Living
  • Exercise: Tigger or Eeyore?
  • Part 6: Final Thoughts